Class Warfare

Wendy Kopp-the woman who wants to save our schools.

by Judith Warner
Photograph: Photo: Michele Asselin

Tellingly, when Kopp is asked what motivated her, she doesn’t relate a self-dramatizing moment of epiphany but rather describes how lost she felt at the time. “I was just truly searching for something,” she says. “I was in an absolute funk. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do.” The inspiration came as she organized an on-campus conference on the problems of American public education and began to daydream about solutions. What if people like her—hundreds, no, thousands of top-achieving college graduates—could be channeled into taking their drive and ambition to our nation’s public schools? In 1989, Kopp sent a letter to President George H. W. Bush urging him to start a teaching corps; she received a form letter job rejection in response. “It seemed like [a teacher corps] had to happen,” she says, “and it wasn’t clear to me that it would happen if I didn’t just do it.” She was totally inexperienced, which she now sees as an asset. “I told myself, What do I really have to lose?” she says. “Because if it doesn’t work out, by the time my friends come back from Europe, I’ll just go find a job. It’s not like I had money. I had to find the funding to live on. But I had a sense, because of my education and whatnot, that I could take that kind of risk.”

It is now also clear that Kopp was able to get her organization off the ground not just because of the simplicity of her idea—funnel high-achieving graduates who don’t really want to work on Wall Street into the public schools—but also because she tapped into a deep vein of energy that no one else had seen. Kopp felt that the so-called experts had misjudged America’s youth: Prevailing wisdom held that, post-graduation, kids of privilege would apply themselves to making money with the same fervor with which they had set out to earn good grades. But as a college senior, Kopp preferred to save the world—and she suspected that other young people probably did, too. “One of the primary motivators was thinking that this label of the Me Generation that we had was so crazy,” she says. “I just didn’t get it. I felt I was one of thousands of people who were searching for something and not getting it. I didn’t know anyone who fit that Me Generation label. Even the people who were just going into the two-year corporate training programs were doing it because they weren’t sure what else to do. I thought the issue wasn’t our generation; it was the recruiters.”

Ignoring the thesis adviser who, she says, told her she was “quite evidently deranged,” Kopp set up with a skeleton staff in donated office space, recruited talent at Yale and other prestigious colleges, flew her first 500 teachers to San Diego on a shoestring, hired former and current teachers to train them in a five-week “boot camp” and delivered them to desperate school systems. And then she struggled. In its early years, the organization wrestled with growing pains, managerial issues (decisions reached by consensus; Chinese-food-fueled staff meetings that lasted until 2 or 3 am) and funding problems so serious that it looked, four years in, as if TFA wouldn’t see its fifth anniversary.

“At every turn we underestimated what it would take to do this well,” Kopp says. “The first decade, we were recruiting with posters and letters. We had to compete with companies that were sending 20 people to Harvard’s campus with a million-dollar budget and wining and dining people.” She underestimated how much money the organization required to function. “We learned the hard way that we needed as much money to go into the generation of revenue as into the programs if we were really going to have the resources necessary to fulfill our potential,” she says. “That’s not how the rest of the world thinks nonprofits should be. But we realized that if we didn’t have a fund-raising infrastructure, we weren’t going to have any programs. That has been the most central learning curve.”

What’s your reaction?

Comments

STLReader 04.23.2011

When TFA started, I thought it sounded like an amazing idea. But 20 years later, that's all it is - a good idea that simply doesn't work. In fact, I believe it does far more damage than good. I know two former TFA teachers and both say it's a complete joke. But it's no skin of their backs-- both are now attending law school at major universities, where the yearly tuition is more than the total income of every child in both schools, combined. To pretend that a 22-year old from an upper middle class home could possibly have the experience and maturity to teach a group of poor kids in one of the worst school districts in my state is just ... ridiculous. I don't have the answers either, but I'm sad to day that TFA isn't one of them.

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